Teddy bears are among the most cuddled and beloved of childhood companions, but they are relatively new in the world of toys. The story of their U.S. origins is probably the most famous. When President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt failed to make a kill on a hunting trip in November of 1902, his companions caught a bear cub and tied it to a tree to give him an easy target. The President would not fire. Instead, he declared, "Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal."
Washington Post artist Clifford K. Berryman immortalized the scene when he drew it in a political cartoon for the paper called "Drawing the Line in Mississippi." That month, Brooklyn store owners Morris and Rose Michtom made a stuffed bear doll, called "Teddy's Bear," and placed it in their display window with the cartoon. The bear was a sensation, prompting the Michtoms to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.
Meanwhile, around the same time in Germany, Richard Steiff created a soft toy bear for his aunt, Margarete Steiff, who owned a big toy factory. Steiff's idea for the bear, called a Bar 55PB, came from his drawings of the animals at the Stuttgart Zoo. An American wholesaler, George Borgfeldt, discovered it at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903, and promptly ordered 3,000 of them. By World War I, Steiff had sold millions of these toys in the United States, Germany, and England.
Steiff bears made between 1903 and 1905 are the most-sought after. They feature hump backs, long snouts, long arms with curved paws, and big tapered feet—after 1905, the trademark Steiff button was sewn into their ears. The earliest Ideal teddy bears, which are also highly valued, look very different; they have triangular faces, chubby bodies, and long straight limbs.
The heyday of teddy bears was between 1906 and 1908, during Roosevelt's second term. Along with regular bears, manufacturers produced novelty models, like the 1907 Laughing Roosevelt Bear by the Columbia Teddy Bear Company, which featured the president's large teeth. The 1917 Patriotic Bear, made during World War I, was red, white, and blue and had electric light bulbs for eyes.
Before World War II, many new teddy-bear makers got their start. In Germany, Bing made mechanical bears while Schuco focused on miniature bears. Hermann bears from this period are also highly regarded. In Great Britain, Dean's started making bear toys in 1915, while Merrythought got into the business in 1930. J.K. Farnell made the original "Winnie the Pooh" bought for Christopher Robin in 1921.
Other early-century teddy-bear makers include Harwin & Co., Chad Valley, William J. Terry and Chiltern in England; Knickerbocker, Bruin, Aetna, and Gund in the United States; and...
After the war, the U.S. market was overwhelmed with cheap plush toys from Asian factories. By the end of the '60s, the traditional teddy bear seemed to be on the verge of extinction. But when teddy bear collector Peter Bull published his 1969 book on his obsession, interest in old-fashioned bears surged. Christie's hosted the first auction devoted to antique and vintage teddy bears in 1985, the same year the Teddy Bear Artists Guild was founded in the United States.
Thanks to the interest in old-fashioned teddy bears, there are a lot of deliberate fakes on the market. They often incorporate elements of the old teddy bears, including long arms, back humps, and straw stuffing, but in the wrong combinations, and appear suspiciously dirty. Knowing the features of antique bears can help you identify the fakes.
For example, vintage teddy bears were most often made out of wool mohair. Silk plush bears were introduced around 1930, but cotton plush wasn't used until after World War II and synthetics didn’t appear until the 1950s. The earliest bears have boot-button eyes. In the 1920s, glass eyes became the most common, while in the 1950s eyes were made of plastic. Each manufacturer had its own unique nose stitching—early noses were stitched out of woven silk.
The oldest antique teddy bears are hard-stuffed with excelsior, also known as wood wool. If a vintage bear is lightweight, it was probably stuffed with fibers from the kapok tree. Bears filled with foam are newer. As for the paws, the ones on vintage bears had pads made of felt or cotton, although the cotton would have worn out and been replaced by now. Velvet and rexine (a fake leather) were also used for paw pads starting in the late 1930s.